Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

The future of the education system

This article is part of a series of articles written by candidates for the Progress strategy board elections. The publishing of this article is not an endorsement of the candidate. You can read Martyn Davis’ candidate statement here

If our policymakers truly want to revolutionise our education system, then they could learn a lot from Finland, writes Martyn Davies 

It is government’s role to be constantly ensuring an education system that is capable of providing world-class learning. This freedom through empowerment allows those involved to become competitive enough to take on the international market and develop pride in their achievements. This noble, yet economically critical, aim for education must therefore surely ensure provision of world-class learning and teaching for all learners and not just the academically gifted, who will leave school and move on the Russell group of universities.

It is important to recognise fundamentally that the move encouraging huge numbers of school leavers at 18 years of age to go onto university is a mistake. The reasons that this move is a mistake are many.

The proliferation of substandard universities that began their educational life, not even as polytechnic but sometimes as technical colleges (or not even that), has developed a market where some degrees from those ‘lesser’ universities have no value in the business, or academic, world. Creating the financial crisis we are seeing in some of those universities today.

Secondly, by looking back further to the decision to abolish the polytechnics and allow them to become universities; it is apparent that few have been successful (with notable exceptions such as South Bank University).

Polytechnics, created under the guidance of Harold Wilson, provided higher education in quite a different way to traditional universities and gave to Britain a highly trained and effective workforce. It was the differentiation between vocational and academic qualifications, taught by those who were best placed to understand and teach those vocational specialist areas. The decision to abolish polytechnics was to downgrade the less traditional subjects such as business studies, engineering and social work, among others. It gave the impression that only university had value. However, this was purely an ideological decision with no educational or pedagogy understanding, a Keith Joseph ideological step rather than an evidence-based development.

Thirdly, and on a sad note, ever since the political arena within education has been led by ideology and poor economics, the system has been handicapped in developing a world-class solution and as a consequence the learner has always ended up a poor second place to politics and dogma.

Why is economics important in this argument? Education will always pay for itself in the long term. The better prepared, educated and trained a workforce, the more income the government will receive through income tax and taxes on spending, as well as the reduction in public benefits spending; because more people would be employed, and less people would require state support to live a satisfactory life.

Education in Great Britain is at the mercy of almost constant changes from government, primarily with focus on a style of education and ‘delivery of curriculum’ that, as the educationalist Sir Ken Robinson has said, ‘was fine in the nineteenth century’. This manifests with exceptionally high turnover in teaching staff. Many teachers leave the profession early; and many of those following their probationary year. What would happen to the health service if 30 per cent of doctors quit within five years of qualifying?

To consider best practice it is always a useful exercise to examine countries with the highest educational achievement and ask whether their example would instruct Britain in the way in which we approach educating our young people. To pre-empt the discussion, it will become clear that policy makers, educators and the media would do very well to take a lesson from Finland!

In Finland teaching is a prestigious career. Children aspire to be doctors, lawyers, scientists and in the same breath, teachers.

Finnish students do the least number of class hours per week in the developed world, yet get the best results. Students in Finland sit no mandatory exams until the age of 17-19. Teacher based assessments are used by schools to monitor progress and these are not graded, but instead are descriptive to inform feedback and assessment for learning.

Great emphasis is put on pupil and teacher trust and well-being. Outdoor, practical learning opportunities and healthy related physical activity sessions are a regular feature in the curriculum, all of which contribute towards maintaining a healthy body and mind and strongly supporting the idea that the two processes of health and learning ability are complimentary.

Finnish schools have full autonomy, with head teachers and teachers experiencing considerable independence when developing and delivering their own individual curricula which are suited to local needs and setting. Finland’s educational philosophy has been to trust the professionals, parents and communities to guide their own policy – and it would appear that it works. The opposite is the case in the United Kingdom where politicians with little or no background as teachers or within the education service, create partisan and ideological decisions without the understanding of the learning process, or indeed a real care about the longer term effect on the individual or the economic consequences for the country.

In Finland, all learners receive free education from when they start their formal education at seven years of age until they complete their university studies. During their educational life all learners receive free school meals, resources and transport and support services.

An important aspect of the Finnish system is that prior to the age of seven, all children attend kindergarten which enables them to learn how to socialise, play and simply enjoy being a child. Unacceptable behaviours are identified and the child is assisted to unlearn that behaviour and to learn acceptable behaviours and, of course, diagnosable behaviours are identified earlier and intervention more effective as a result.

Many educational institutions are combined primary and secondary schools, thus avoiding the disruption of moving from school to school which also allows for a consistent ethos. Students do not wear uniforms and are encouraged to relax in their surroundings.

The Finnish system is based on the premise that it is not necessary to overload the learner. The approach is to allow them the freedom to learn and to enjoy the experience and at the same time not over stressing the young person. This approach would be at odds with the system in the UK where standards and effectiveness are measured in standardised data and evidence trails. It is interesting to note that none of the educationally high achieving nations has a central inspection system. Rather the local authority has the responsibility for ensuring quality of teaching and learning.

Another reason that the Finnish system works so well is that they have thought about how children and young people learn best and created an environment in which to facilitate this. In the UK, our primary problem is not with diversity. The Leitch report (2005) does not provide any evidence that our mythical ‘golden age’ of education provided a sound education for all. However, it does remind us that one third of all adults left school with no basic learning qualification and over five million people with no qualifications at all.

If we were to consider the introduction of the Finnish system into the UK, it would require a seismic shift in thinking, a cross-party agreement not to use education as a political football and a supportive media to the long term ideal of radically improving our education system.

What would be achieved by these radical changes and commitment to the future of education ceasing to be a political battleground?

The nation’s education system would be developed on a long-term vision of a school system, with teachers’ focus concentrating on learning and teaching rather than preparing learners for tests or exams, creating a process that would always find well performing schools and high quality learning and teaching.

Learners would stay at the same school until they reach 16 and then attend either academic secondary colleges or vocational colleges; all of which will offer courses, teaching and progression of equal status and attract equal government funding.

This system offers many workable and pragmatic education policy directions for creating a world class education system.

It is time for policy makers, educators and the media to examine the education policy directions of countries like Finland, instead of continually duplicating the less-than-successful policy ideas that are regularly imported from the low-ranking American education system.

It means that if the secretaries of state for education can be radical in their approach, they will assist the government to create a world-class system based on the success of the highest achieving countries, ensuring that education is less of a political battle field and much more of a consensus.


Martyn Davis is a candidate in the Progress strategy board elections. You can read his candidate statement here


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